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Agnieszka Tennant

Counting (Helping) Hands

A conversation with Ram Cnaan

Less than a year ago, America's religious congregations received a stunning compliment. It came from the desk of a secular Jew frequently quoted by John DiIulio.

He is Israeli-born Ram A. Cnaan, professor of social work and founding director of the Program for the Study of Organized Religion and Social Work at University of Pennsylvania.

Cnaan first drew attention to the social involvement of congregations in The Newer Deal: Social Work and Religion in Partnership (Columbia Univ. Press, 1999). Last year, he and his fellow researchers published The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare (New York Univ. Press), which is reviewed on this page. Agnieszka Tennant talked with Cnaan about his findings.

What gave you the eyes for the invisible caring hand?

In Israel there were no independent religious organizations providing services. In fact, the religious organizations there are not doing much. In the United States, they do more. When I found that here, the religious community is highly involved in social services, I realized that there is very little about it in the professional literature or in training materials. So I started looking into why. This was the beginning of my journey.

There are studies similar to yours. Mark Chaves from the University of Arizona studied a sample of more than a thousand congregations, and then there was another study from Hartford Institute for Religious Research. What sets your study of congregations apart from the other ones?

Those other studies are not coming from social work. They come from sociology. Both Carl Dudley at Hartford and Mark Chaves in Arizona are sociologists. The conceptual difference is that I or one of my assistants interviewed face-to-face every congregation in my study. The others collected data from intermediaries. In the case of the Hartford study, Dudley and his team got reports from denominations and other organizations. They didn't collect the data themselves. On the other hand, they reached a very large number of congregations, altogether about 14,000, extremely impressive. In the Arizona study, which was actually mostly done by a Chicago group, they interviewed the congregations primarily over the telephone. Chaves and the University of Chicago researchers had a wonderful method where they interviewed laypeople and asked them for the names of the clergy. This way, they were able to get to the small, unaffiliated congregations. But they did not actually visit them. We went in and spent time with the congregations.

What difference did it make?

We realized that the congregations use a different language from ours. There is an important linguistic barrier. Things that they thought are not social programs really are social programs. So when Mark Chaves found that only 57 percent of congregations provide social services, that's in the language that calls them "social programs."

Our reviewer cites a higher figure from the Chaves study: 74.6 percent.

Chaves reported two sets of numbers. One is the percentage of actual congregations involved in providing social services. This number is 57 percent. The higher figure represents the percentage of congregational members nationwide whose churches are providing services. The seeming discrepancy reflects the fact that smaller congregations are less likely to provide social services.

We found that congregations of all sizes may use other words to describe what we call social programs. Ministries, women's groups, auxiliary groups—they have endless names. To the congregations, "social services" might suggest some big project in collaboration with the government. Sometimes they're even offended if you describe what they are doing as a social program. "Ha! This is a daycare center! How can you call it a program?" they say. Or, I see a soup kitchen and ask them, "So you have a food distribution program?" But they say, "No, that's not a program, that's only the men's group activity."

So the language is very important. When we are there and meet with them, we give them a list of activities. We have an opportunity to talk with them about what they do. After they see the list of activities that qualify as social services, they say, "Oh, that's what you mean. Yes, then we do have social programs."

In reaching a group of congregations, Mark Chaves did a wonderful job. But the language the University of Chicago group used in this study leaves things open to interpretation.

Your research was very affirming of clergy who have their hands full with wide-ranging duties. In fact, you dedicate your book to clergy.

Everybody expects the clergy to be good people. So when they do good things, it's not being reported anywhere—that's not newsworthy. But when they do something bad, it's always reported. I've followed The Philadelphia Inquirer's reporting on clergy. In the last two years, they made the front page only three times, always in a negative context.

But I see hundreds of clergy who are doing a wonderful job. You know, not every one of them is a decent, honest human being. But on average, they give way more to society than they get in return. We don't appreciate them enough.

Your study undermined a widely accepted notion that the mainline, more liberal churches are active and that the more conservative congregations are less involved when it comes to social services. What specifically led you to this conclusion?

We have two questions to measure the religious orientation of the congregations. One was, "Where would you say the majority of members defined themselves religiously: fundamentalist, conservative, moderate, or liberal?"

We found that there is no correlation between this variable and involvement in social service. The volume of involvement, the percentage of the congregation's budget that goes to social services—these were similar across the board. When it comes to serving society, groups with different core theologies basically deal the same with people. I'm sure that in many instances of daily life you would find differences between evangelical and mainline groups, for instance, but in terms of how they care for the needy or their concern for the needy, there isn't that much difference.

Were you surprised by that?

At first I was. And then I found that I'm not the only one who has come up with results like this. Christian Smith at Duke University, for example, found that volunteerism among mainline liberals and evangelical groups is at similar levels. So I'm not totally off. When you get a finding that doesn't agree with the common view, you assume at first that you may be wrong. But I was delighted to learn that the findings of other researchers confirm the results of our study.

Were you surprised by any other discoveries?

The biggest surprise was simply that it's really a norm for congregations in America to provide social services. It took me awhile to find out just how pervasive this norm is. The respondents said, "Of course, we're a congregation, so we do it." No one even questions it. Sometimes they apologized to me. "You know, we're just a young congregation. We just started. We don't do much. We should have done more." Half the time they would ask me, "Can you tell me how we can do more of what we are doing?" And I would look at them and I would think, "You are asking me?" Nobody told me, "No, we cannot do it" or "It's not our job."

This commitment to service is a major power for our society. We don't know exactly how many congregations there are nationwide, but even if you take a conservative estimate of 300,000, then there are 300,000 groups who assume that it's their responsibility to help people.

Another thing that was surprising for me is that I was expecting them to be providing social services primarily in order to persuade people to change their religion and become members. That assumption was simply wrong. Of course everybody would like the people they help to join the congregation if they are not members already. But an overwhelming majority of congregations do what they do because to provide social services is for them to actualize their faith—to be good Christian people, good Muslims, good Jews, to do the right thing.

People said, "If you want to be like Jesus, you have to help the needy. That is why I'm giving so many hours a week to this."

What's the message that you hope your study will send to congregations?

Clergy and congregants should be proud of what they are providing for others. No one else does what they are doing so happily, and on their own initiative.

Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor of Christianity Today magazine.

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